Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Speaking of Epiphanies

Three epiphanies have helped to move my faith-life along as a songwriter in the Church. There have been more, personal events and relationships that have vectored my work in this way or that, but three have really shaped the passion in me for trying to find words and music to help my Church find a reason, a song, and a voice to praise God with integrity in this time and place.

First, there was the cluster of changes and development around the liturgy that followed the Second Vatican Council. As a boy, I knew the mass in Latin by heart, and had sung many of the plainsong chant masses and songs in Latin right up  through the first years of my seminary high school education. As a server and sacristan in my Catholic grammar school years, I had a fairly long experience of daily mass, of high mass and low mass, of simple singing and choral singing. What was an epiphany to me was getting into high school and then college, hearing the words  of the mass in my own language, and, perhaps even more forcefully, hearing daily the words of scripture in my own language. The work of Frs. Deiss and Gelineau and the early editions of the People's Mass Book allowed me to sing those words in worship with others, and the creative spirit in the air through the late 1960s and beyond caught up my imagination and others' with a sense that we could begin to write music for worship out of our own inspiration.

Second, there was a seminar on Christology taught to us on novitiate in 1969 or 1970 that awakened my soul to the beauty and reality of Christ. Using the texts of St. Paul in Romans, Corinthians and elsewhere, Vincentian scripture scholar William Lynch helped set a permanent fire to my heart as I was invited to dwell in the mystery of the mystical body of Christ, which was an open doorway to both the mystery of the Church and a fuller appreciation of the gift of the Eucharist.

Finally, fifteen years later in the mid-1980s, after working in church ministry part time for years and full time for about a year, I met Gary Daigle at the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study in Phoenix, where we were students of the late John Gallen, SJ, and many others, learning enthusiasm for the liturgy from such lights as Robert Taft, SJ, Austin Fleming, John Baldovin, SJ, Virgil Funk, Thomas Talley, and many others. In a sense, this experience braked our creativity, showed me the beauty and wisdom of submitting to the discipline of the liturgy while continuing to embrace the challenge of adaptation and enculturation.

There have been others: working with Christianne Brusselmans, James Dunning, and the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, learning from the late Robert I. Blanchard and his craft and vision that birthed the Composers' Forum for Catholic Worship, my encounter with the work of RenĂ© Girard, and the dozens of fine musicians, liturgists, and theologians who have enriched my life over the years with their generosity and artistry. 

There has been a tremendous influence on my work from the communities in which I have worked, notably the Vincentian (Congregation of the Mission) community at St. Mary's Seminary in Perryville, Missouri, St. Jerome Catholic Community in Phoenix, Arizona, and currently St. Anne Catholic Community in Barrington, Illinois. From my first collection of songs in 1984 through my most recent efforts, every song has been conceived and written with voices of these people in my heart. I hear my friends in the seminary in 1971 singing the refrain of Psalm 40 ("Here I am, Lord, here I am; I come to do your will") on a wintry Sunday morning, the assembly in Phoenix taking to the refrains of "Jerusalem, My Destiny" and the Exodus reading in their spring liturgies, and the generous choir and assemblies of St. Anne's nursing the music that is Christ the Icon and Today into being, along with the growing number of pieces I've written since those collections.

The influence and dance of these epiphanies can be seen throughout the entire collection of my songs. Christ the Icon and Today represent music I have written almost entirely since my move to the Chicago area in 1994. But those three epiphanies are visible in each song: the words of psalms and other scripture, the church as the mystical Christ, and the influence the great liturgical thinkers of the American church since the Council.